To most people, Superior, Wis., is nothing more than a series of traffic lights to endure on the fast track to the Apostle Islands or Upper Peninsula.
It's sprawling, ugly and utterly devoid of interest.
Or is it?
In the forest around Hayward and Cable, its easy to catch speed fever.
This is where the worlds best Nordic skiers compete on the Birkie Trail, famous for its relentless ups and downs, and mountain bikers race on the CAMBA trails, known for 270-degree switchbacks and such obstacles as a boulder called the Volkswagen.
In this pocket of northwest Wisconsin, endurance athletes streak through Chequamegon National Forest year-round, training for the next big race on more than 300 miles of marked trails.
In Ashland, Wis., the ghosts of the past appear in living color.
Once, these lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks and lieutenants lived only in the history books. Now, they're painted onto Ashland's walls, where they serve as backdrop to shoppers, college students and tourists going about their business downtown.
The first mural, painted for Wisconsin's sesquicentennial in 1998 by local artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, featured the snowshoe-clad figure of pioneer Asaph Whittlesey as well as editor Sam Fifield, Ojibwe Chief Buffalo and other characters from the town's early days.
In the forests and lakes around the northwestern Wisconsin town of Cable, the reds, oranges and yellows of fall are mere gilding on the lily.
This landscape, much of it part of Chequamegon National Forest, is beautiful in any season.
In winter, cross-country skiers glide along forest paths and the 52-kilometer Birkebeiner trail, on which North America's largest and most famous Nordic-skiing race is held each February.
For a long time, the people of Superior, Wis., observed mostly Scandinavian traditions.
And then the dragons arrived.
In China, the works of poet Qu Yuan inspired dragon-boat races, which are held worldwide and have been popular in Canada for many years.
In 1920, northern Wisconsin already was a playground for people from Chicago.
And when Prohibition flung open the door to organized crime, its remote lakes and forests became even more attractive to a certain kind of Chicagoan.
Al Capone had a fortified summer home on a lake near Hayward, to which hydroplanes flew whiskey from Canada.
In winter, ice comes with the territory. You can curse it or you can play with it.
Kids know how. Climbers and skaters know how. And photographers adore it.
Having fun with ice also is a good way to cope with a winter that drags on, endlessly, into April.
One hundred years ago, the white-pine forests around Hayward were the domain of a special breed of man.
They were swampers, sawyers and skidders. They were deckers, chainers, undercutters and riverhogs. They were dwarfed by the colossal trees they had to wrestle out of the forest, and their lives hung on their own brawn, nerve and dumb luck.
Six days a week they worked, dawn to dusk, all winter long. In spring, they'd roar into Hayward for whiskey and wild women; their brawling earned the town a reputation reflected in a train conductor's call: "All aboard for Hayward, Hurley and Hell!''
From the beginning, Hayward has been a rough town.
It sprang up in Wisconsin's north woods along with the logging camps, and its saloons and brothels gave it a reputation that was reflected in a rail conductor's call: "All aboard for Hayward, Hurley and Hell!"
After resorts replaced logging camps, muskie wranglers joined lumberjacks as mythic figures.
Deep in the forests of Wisconsin, and Potato River Falls was nowhere to be found.
A sign pointed to an observation deck, from which I glimpsed a bridal-veil falls in the distance. But the path down the Potato River led only to a cobblestone beach.
Finally, I left the path to climb down a steep hillside, slippery with clay and choked with the roots of spruce trees that flecked my hands with sap.
What becomes a legend most? In the case of Telemark Resort in northwest Wisconsin, solvency.
The once-busy ski lodge closed in 1998, reopened in 1999, closed again in 2010, reopened in January 2011, and closed once more in 2013.
The lodge, which polite guests call "a diamond in the rough,'' desperately needs updating.
In summer, the Bayfield Peninsula, on the northern tip of Wisconsin, is a playground of sand, water and woods, beloved by tourists.
In winter, the playground expands.
Lake Superior freezes and people come to play, walking to the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia and skiing across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight.
Even if it werent official, Timms Hill would be the high point of any Wisconsin hiking trip.
Timms Hill, a big pile of rock and gravel deposited by the last glacier, is Wisconsins highest point at 1,952 feet above sea level. I went hiking there expecting, well, a big pile with a nice view.
Which it was. It also turned out to be in the middle of an intriguing pocket of forest, settled by Swedes, Finns and Germans stubborn enough to handle the rocks sprinkled over the hills like salt on a pretzel.
For more than a century, the woods and waters of northern Wisconsin meant nothing but hard work for European settlers, who eked out a living there by trapping and logging.
It was only after the turn of the 20th century that folks in the south decided they could have a lot of fun up in the woods. So they left their offices and factories and headed north by the thousands.
Thus began the transformation from harvest to tourism.
More than any other river in Wisconsin, the Bois Brule has a pedigree.
They call it River of Presidents, but it also attracts senators and millionaires. Named for pines charred by lightning strikes burnt wood in Ojibwe, then French it rises from conifer bogs near Solon Springs and flows toward Lake Superior.
Its cold, spring-fed currents harbor trout, and well-heeled fishermen discovered the river long before loggers moved in.
At the turn of the last century, as Wisconsins pineries were vanishing into sawmills, the vast fortunes they produced fell to the heirs of the Knapp, Stout lumber company.
Operating in the Red Cedar River valley, it was for a time the largest in the world, and Menomonie was the company town. The heirs gave it schools, churches, an auditorium; James Stout, son of the president, endowed the institute that became the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
His brother Frank found a different use for his money. He plowed $1.5 million in 1915 money into a 26-acre island estate near the town of Rice Lake, on Red Cedar Lake.
Just two miles from the start of the Bois Brule, another famous river flows in the opposite direction.
It's the St. Croix, flowing out of Upper St. Croix Lake and toward the Mississippi River. The two rivers are separated by a continental divide but became an important water highway for Indians, explorers and fur traders.
Today, their two-mile portage trail is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.